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SXSW Recap: Key Takeaways from Disinformation Panels

The global digital community came together once again at the 2019 SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, TX. Programming this year covered the usual new tech, as well as various advancements in blockchain and artificial intelligence. The indelible impact data science has on media, journalism, and politics was heard loud and clear in panels devoted to fake news and disinformation. This year members of New Knowledge leadership served as both moderators and panelists, and NK Labs scientists demonstrated SIMON, a semantic Natural Language Analysis tool that may play an important role in identifying and mitigating disinformation. Here are some of our takeaways from the disinformation panels at this year’s event.

There Is No Single Disinformation Solution

Organized by the European Union “AI the Silver Bullet Against Disinformation” was moderated by New Knowledge Vice President of Operations Annie Klomhaus, and included Shaarik Zafar, Public Policy Manager at Facebook. The consensus of the group was there is no single silver bullet or tool that can solve the complex disinformation problem. While machines and artificial intelligence can detect many meaningful signals of coordinated disinformation, and while it takes machines to delete fraudulent accounts on a scale large enough to be effective, it takes people to find the most sophisticated campaigns. Trolls, and those pushing forward fake accounts are using automation and that’s what makes AI also part of the problem. The panel likened the battle against disinformation to guerrilla warfare, expressing the need for strategies that eliminate state and non-state actors. The group recommends improved computer and internet literacy, better network mapping and increased government involvement.

Interested in hearing the whole conversation? The European Union posted a video of this panel on its Facebook page.

Disinformation Is a Brand Problem

Bringing top minds together to discuss the challenges and responsibilities brands face in the battle against disinformation, the panel “Disinformation 2019: Brands in the Crosshairs” promoted a discussion that examined what corporations face when brands are the focus of coordinated automated disinformation campaigns. Panelists included New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan, Janice Person, Online Engagement Director at Bayer Crop Science, Joshua Lowcock, Chief Digital & Brand Safety Officer at Universal McCann, and Mo Johnson, Director of Data for Democracy. This group of widely varied individuals created a conversation that yielded some common goals and ideas about why brands need to start prioritizing how they are going to solve this problem now.

  • In an effort to be interesting and relevant, many brands take a stand on social issues, making themselves vulnerable to disinformation campaigns.
  • Effective brand management and promotion are now more closely tied to social stands than they have been before.
  • Public trust is both earned and fragile, and maintaining it means people will not be completely displaced by machine learning
  • Technologists, brands, and regulation needs to work together to prevent disinformation campaigns from eroding social trust and gaining a foothold and threatening reputations.

Creativity + Technology + Leadership = Action

Comprised of Film, Interactive, Music and Education conferences, SXSW in its entirety is a convergence of creativity, money, technology and leadership. While most technologists attend the Interactive Conference, the efficacy of the solution in the battle against fake news depends on all of the different types of people who attend each part of the whole conference. Why? Comprehensive defense against fake news will require executives, creatives, communicators, educators, ethicists, technologists and legislators on all sides of every aisle to join forces to consistently be one step ahead of the perpetrators of disinformation. Innovators and leadership need each other.

How Do We Solve the Problem of Disinformation?

While all panels covered diverse content surrounding disinformation, one topic that was consistently addressed was how we fight this problem. Multiple panels at the conference mentioned ways ordinary people, marketing executives and technologists can do more to keep up the fight. A few suggestions as to where to start tackling this problem included:

  • Increased Critical Thinking: School curricula needs to introduce and foster the continued development of critical thinking
  • Better Computer Literacy: Seek out online classes or programs at your local community college
  • Better Network Mapping: What is the relationship between accounts and platforms that disseminate automated messages?
  • International Policies based on perpetrator activities: Legislators and technologists need to sit down at the same, international table

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